White House rocks to sounds of Memphis soul

Memphis musicians Sam Moore (left), Mavis Staples and Justin Timberlake attend a Memphis music workshop in the State Dining Room at the White House on Tuesday. The workshop, “Soulsville, USA: The History of Memphis Soul,” focused on the roots of soul and R&B music.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht, The Commercial Appeal // Buy this photo

Memphis musicians Sam Moore (left), Mavis Staples and Justin Timberlake attend a Memphis music workshop in the State Dining Room at the White House on Tuesday. The workshop, “Soulsville, USA: The History of Memphis Soul,” focused on the roots of soul and R&B music.

Michelle Obama reacts as she introduces Memphis musicians to high school students attending the workshop at the White House. Two students were from Soulsville Charter School and Stax Academy in Memphis. Memphis natives Justin Timberlake, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples and Sam Moore were among those who performed at The White House.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht, The Commercial Appeal

Michelle Obama reacts as she introduces Memphis musicians to high school students attending the workshop at the White House. Two students were from Soulsville Charter School and Stax Academy in Memphis. Memphis natives Justin Timberlake, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples and Sam Moore were among those who performed at The White House.

Memphis musicians entertained President Obama, his family and invited guests at the White House on Tuesday night. He talked about the impact of Memphis music on the country and its timeless sound; he also talked about his desire to sing like Al Green. Memphis artists and musicians inspired by the Memphis sound played to a packed room.

Photo by Karen Pulfer Focht, The Commercial Appeal

Memphis musicians entertained President Obama, his family and invited guests at the White House on Tuesday night. He talked about the impact of Memphis music on the country and its timeless sound; he also talked about his desire to sing like Al Green. Memphis artists and musicians inspired by the Memphis sound played to a packed room.

WASHINGTON — Memphis soul music came to the White House on Tuesday night with a playing of “Green Onions” introducing the first family and President Barack Obama asking “four timeless words: ‘can you dig it?’ ”

The president joked that, now that he’s in his second term, the Booker T. and the M.G.’s classic would replace “Hail to the Chief” from now on.

The atmosphere was free and easy as the president announced the weekend engagement of two longtime campaign staffers and mentioned to Justin Timberlake that “they are looking for a wedding singer. I’m just saying.”

“Tonight, I am speaking not just as president, but as one of America’s best-known Al Green impersonators,” Obama deadpanned to laughter and applause.

The crowd was full of well-known political and entertainment celebrities, including Timberlake’s wife, actress Jessica Biel. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam got a call out from the president who said, “even the governor of Tennessee said he’s going to dance tonight.” Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, Memphis congressman Steve Cohen and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton were also on hand.

In his preconcert remarks, the president also got serious, delving into the history of soul music in Memphis.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, Memphis knew its share of division and discord and injustice,” he said. “But in that turbulent time, the sound of Hi, and Duke, and Sun and Stax Records tried to bridge those divides — to create a little harmony with harmony.”

Obama also told the story of Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper, who the president noted “helped form one of the city’s first integrated bands. They weren’t allowed to go to school together. They weren’t allowed to travel or eat together. But no one could stop them from playing music together.”

Later, he said soul was “about the pain of being alone, the power of human connection, and the importance of treating each other right. After all, this is the music that asked us to try a little tenderness.”

Members of the Memphis news media were permitted to see the first number in what will be next Tuesday’s PBS special “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul.” In it, Sam Moore, of Sam and Dave fame, and Joshua Ledet, an American Idol star Obama said was turning 21 on Tuesday, belted out “Soul Man” as Obama and Michelle Obama bopped around in their seats bookended by their children, Sasha and Malia.

Before the presidential party arrived, executive producer Kenneth Erlich had urged latecomers to take their seats and then got the crowd to clap to an Otis Redding recording of “Respect” on the twos and fours.

Soon everyone in the East Room was clapping and dancing to the music.

Earlier Tuesday, first lady Michelle Obama held a workshop for school students in the State Dining Room, saying the White House “is buzzing with excitement today as we celebrate the rhythmic groove of Memphis soul Memphis is in the House.”

That celebration lasted just over an hour as students from around the country, including Adrian Williams of Stax Music Academy in Memphis, asked questions of five soul five musicians — most concentrating on Timberlake — about their work.

The workshop was led by Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, who talked about the history of soul — from Ray Charles’ 1959 “What’d I Say” and Aretha Franklin’s version of Redding’s “Respect” to Redding’s own version of “Tennessee Waltz.”

As the recording of Redding’s “Waltz” played to the audience, Timberlake let out a loud “woooo” from center stage and strummed an air guitar.

“Soul music is so emotionally intense,” Santelli told the assembled students — most of them musicians — because it came out of the churches.

Mavis Staples told the students that she’d sing gospel music on Sunday and soul on Saturday nights, the difference being “rather than saying ‘Jesus,’ you’re saying ‘baby.’ ”

Timberlake said soul got his early attention because it was clear there was a link between “faith and soul They believed what they were singing,” he said. He also told of his discovery that the Rev. Al Green lived only “seven or eight minutes” from his home in Shelby Forest, and how that made him recognize “so much of that music was right where I lived.”

Timberlake also credited gospel for his start in music. “Church was the first place I ever got brave enough to sing,” he said.

Seven students got to ask questions and most were directed to Timberlake. A clearly smitten girl named Jordan from Herndon, Va., asked him about his sources of inspiration, and her heartthrob addressed her by name.

After the teach-in, Williams, the 18-year-old guitar player from Stax Music Academy, showed off a guitar pick Ben Harper gave him after singing the workshop’s closing number — “We Can’t End This Way,” with Musselwhite accompanying him on harp.

“My highlight was asking Justin Timberlake a question about how his environment kind of molds the person who he is — the people around him, the places he’s been,” Williams said. “Him being a person from Memphis, Tenn., it was great having that kind of a connection with him.”

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.